Finding Real Chiefs

National Football League historians live and breathe the NFL shield. But for Chiefs defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham, it's much deeper when he talks about the city he lives in and the football team he coaches. Cunningham has a love affair with both.

That's why he's determined to help his friend, Herm Edwards, rebuild his football team with players who understand what it means to be an NFL player in Kansas City.

Wednesday Cunningham talked about restoring the pride that once lived in almost every Chiefs player during a certain time period. In listening for nearly 90 minutes, one thing stood out. He's found "it" again - that one thing you latch onto in identifying what it will take to be great. Not him, but his players and the Chiefs – especially on defense.


After the Chiefs went 4-12 this past season, one in which Cunningham only cared about getting his young players experience, he decided to go back to his past. In the month of January, he wanted to figure out why the Chiefs were so dominant on defense in the ‘90s.

Gunther's research was sparked by a trend he personally witnessed over the last three years. The Chiefs gave up only 28 touchdowns in 2007, down from 32 in 2006, down from 36 in 2005. So he decided to dig a little deeper.

"I went, boy, this is interesting," said Cunningham. "When you know, and you've been around a long time, you understand giving up touchdowns is the most critical stat you have. That's the only one that matters."

"Then I really got into it. The more I got into the 20-year history, it was the third-fewest in 20 years. The 1997 and 1995 teams gave up 23, and I believe it was 1990 they gave up 25 to 23 - there was a real good defense here in 1990."

But why did those great Chiefs defenses succeed so well? Cunningham expanded his history lesson and examined other franchises. He found that like the Chiefs of the 90s, recent successful teams – the New England Patriots, San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos – had a high percentage of draft picks still playing for the team that originally drafted them.

"It's really interesting to me, because in the three years we've been here, we had six choices from round one through four," said Cunningham. "All six of those guys are here and all of them are playing. In those two years we had no fourths, so I did a comparative study between New England, Denver, San Diego, and us. In those years from 2001 to 2007, New England had 29 choices. Nine of those failed. That's about 31 percent. Denver had 26 choices. Eight of those failed. San Diego had 29 choices. Seventeen percent failure. Those numbers start adding up."

The other thing that didn't add up was how the Chiefs had built their teams prior to the last few years. Under Dick Vermeil the philosophy was to play veterans and sign free agents with a year or two of NFL shelf life left. There was never a push for a youth movement until Edwards arrived in 2006.

Cunningham compared the current Chiefs to those other franchises. On the current roster, he counted 27 players who have played for the Chiefs and the Chiefs only since entering the league. What did those players have in common? Loyalty.

"Derrick Johnson is the best example I can give you," said Cunningham. "He's from the University of Texas. When we play a game away, on Saturday night if that Texas team is on, he's watching. But that's true for every guy that came from any school."

"What happens when you get the UFA guys, the pro free agents, they come from say Texas. Then they stop at New England, maybe Denver, and then come here. Somewhere along that line, that loyalty factor they learned in college, they lose when they get to the second team in pro football. Then it becomes about money."


So what does Gunther's 20-year study mean for the Chiefs? What is the real direction, not only of the defense, but of the entire 53-man roster? After studying the past and comparing it to what went wrong under Vermeil, Cunningham and Edwards have realized the future.

"When Herm came in, the lights started to rise back over Arrowhead," said Cunningham. "It got real clear what he wanted to do and I'm emotional even bringing that up, because he is a defensive coach and Herm's idea was to play young guys. Get them, and play them."

"That 10-year period from ‘87 to ‘97, is historical. That stadium is the Mecca of the NFL during those 10 years. You know what happened? They had Chiefs. They had Chief football players on that team. There weren't a whole bunch of free agents. Plan B was there. Plan B made you loyal because Plan B still had you pigeonholed. We got Hasty, Saleaumua, Joe Phillips, those guys. Well, half those guys still live in town. Even Shawn Barber lives a block away from me. He won't move, he loves Kansas City. So those loyalty factors are what Herm's trying to go back to."

The organization is on track to build that youth movement through the NFL draft. The Chiefs are sitting with 10 picks at the moment and could garner even more before April.

As for the current roster, Cunningham is making sure the loyalty runs thick. Last season, even though the Chiefs finished 4-12 and lost nine games in a row, he was unaware of the team's exact record during the nine-game losing streak. Cunningham attempted to instill in his players a similar attitude – play hard no matter the circumstances, no matter the score.

"If one guy in my room said a word, I would be jumping across about 10 rows to choke him," said Cunningham. "What our option was on defense, we had one: to get the young guys better and keep playing no matter what. If you stop playing, you were going to pay the fiddler. We were going to choke you."

Cunningham said he succeeded in his mission. Only once during the entire season did a player complain about the team's current state of affairs.

It happened during a defensive team meeting, in which Cunningham was reviewing scores from around the NFL. The Chiefs had just been blown out by the Denver Broncos, 41-7. Cunningham didn't want to see it happen two weeks in a row, so he pointed out a list of playoff-bound teams who had lost games by large margins, only to rebound.

Jarrad Page then stated that yes, those teams lost, but they all had good offenses backing up the defense. Cunningham would hear none of it. He grabbed his young safety around the neck.

"I said under no condition do you breath one word of what you just said," said Cunningham. "I'm not stupid, I know what the scores are. I know what happened in those games."

"He said, ‘I just wanted you to know if we had scored, we might have had a chance in that game.' That tells you about the character in the room of the defensive players."

What players is Cunningham talking about? Which young defenders with loyalty to the organization will lead the Chiefs into the 2008 season? Wednesday Cunningham cited four names above others: Page, Bernard Pollard, Tank Tyler and Turk McBride.

All had their struggles in 2007, but Cunningham was prepared to defend them. He said they just need time.

How much time do Gunther's young Chiefs need? Cunningham cited a lesson he was taught by Raiders owner Al Davis, that it takes three years for a young NFL player to grow into the role of a starter.


"You draft a guy in the second round, he's supposed to get 10 sacks or he's not very good – Turk McBride," said Cunningham. "The next guy you draft in the third round (Tank Tyler), well he didn't get 10 sacks, so he's not very good. The way I personally try to do it on defense, you give people room to grow."

But Chiefs fans don't need to be overly patient with Turk McBride and Tank Tyler. In reviewing film from the 2007 season, Cunningham said he sees things already that are cause for confidence in his young players. He cited KC's road trip to Detroit as a high point for McBride.

It all started when Cunningham shared an elevator trip with the young defensive tackle the night before the game.

"I looked at him and said ‘Turk, you're figuring this thing out," recalled Cunningham. "He turned around and said ‘Gun, it's a process.' Herm and I use that word all the time. Process. He said it and I thought, he's getting it."

McBride didn't disappoint the next morning. Cunningham said the rookie had a great game rushing the passer inside with veteran tackle Jimmy Wilkerson. Sure enough, stalwart defensive play in the second half almost helped the Chiefs upset the Lions.

What about Tyler? Cunningham said toward the end of the season, Tyler's play against the run in a game against the Tennessee Titans clearly indicated why the Chiefs spent a third-round pick on him.

"He's the best run defender on first and second down," said Cunningham. "When he plays in there he's just devastating. He's just killing him. Where he needs to make a step is in his pass rush."

"I remember one game here, I looked down at Tank Tyler and I thought oh my God, he knows. He knows he's stronger than anybody they've got. I just felt so good for him. That body language tells you a lot of things about where the guy is. He doesn't have to say anything, you can just feel it."


McBride and Tyler weren't the only experiment on this defense the past season. Cunningham also had to be patient with his young safeties. But the Chiefs made a commitment right from the start. They would live and die with Bernard Pollard and Jarrad Page.

"It was 10 years ago, exactly, this same discussion came up with Jerome Woods and Reggie Tongue," said Cunningham. "I said screw it, we're playing them. I don't care. We're going to live with their mistakes but we're talking about down the road."

"I talked to Herm about it, he gave me his blessings and I said we're going to live with the mistakes. I know we made the right decision. I am very excited to see those guys a year from now, when they know how to fit."

And what is Cunningham so excited about?

"Bernard is different from Jarrad, who was an outstanding baseball player," he said. "Some of the instincts you see him playing centerfield with, he has that feel for the fly ball. Football is the same, the only thing is the quarterback throws it instead of using the bat."

"Bernard came out as a junior. Nobody talks about that. Emotionally he's not there. The maturity level is not there. These guys grow at different levels. I always kid him when he makes a mistake and I go, well I learned that about two years ago. He looks at me like I'm crazy and I say it takes time to grow up. It just took me longer than most guys."

"He's a very physical, strong-bodied player and he can run. Sometimes when you make a mistake you look a little slower, and that's a lack of anticipation about the defense and how to fit. Those are the things we're going through, but I could go through all kinds of things statistically this year."


So is he sure? Is Gunther Cunningham absolutely sure that he's found some real Chiefs with bonafide, home-cooked loyalty? In Week 17, he had a pretty good idea.

As the Chiefs wrapped up their final game of the year, a loss to the New York Jets in overtime, Cunningham's work throughout the year paid off. His crop came in, as seven players approached him and asked for personal meetings in the offseason.

"The whole deal was – Chiefs, Pros," said Cunningham. "Get the young guys better. That was the thrust at the end of the year. When those seven guys walked up to me prior to the Jets game and asked for help, I thought, damn. They've got it."

And the Chiefs have Cunningham. When he returned to the organization, everyone thought he would wave his magic wand and the defense would suddenly improve. But even back then, he knew it would be a process.

"I'm not God," said Cunningham. "I can't put my hands on someone and fix them. I'm a ditch digger. I take a shovel and I dig and I put it in the wheelbarrow and empty it and start all over. So when I saw the condition of this defense, I knew what had to happen and it was going to be a process."

"So, when 2004 ended, I knew what had to be done. There was no foundation. What the process has been on this defense is to turn back to those 10 years in the ‘80s and through the ‘90s. What that team had is Chiefs. They were Kansas City guys, they played for this football team with all the passion in the world and all those fans stood up every time we took the field."

"That'll be the happiest day of my life when I see that again." Top Stories